In 2011 Chilean students began a protest movement to challenge the education system of their country. Known as the “Chilean Winter”, their dissatisfaction poured onto social media platforms. The students leveraged these sites to great effect to mobilise fellow academics, draw international support and express their own narratives which were ignored by the media. Fast-forward to 2015 and a similar pattern of social media usage has emerged in the #FeesMustFall campaign born in South Africa. While much of the action has taken place at grassroots level, social media has proven to be an important part of the action.
Social media sites were used to mobilise students for various marches that took place at universities across the country. By focalising events around the #FeesMustFall hashtag, local and international audiences were able to follow the movement as it grew. The hashtag was also used to create a dialogue by students on their feelings towards soaring tuition costs. The result was that in a country with an insatiable appetite for soapies and sport, Oscar Pistorius and the Rugby World Cup took a backseat as the campaign became a number one trending topic and continued to dominate the public discourse.
Naturally this led to heated debates but they tended to be more sophisticated than the racial friction and crassness that characterised the conversation of the #RhodesMustFall campaign earlier this year.
Responses from universities and the government were disseminated online. Student representatives were consulted through their social media accounts. Former students and invested South Africans offered their support through Facebook groups and on Twitter where donations of time, money, food and bottled water were organised for protesting students.
The students also used social media to counter false narratives surrounding their movement. Where the media reported sensationally on the irrational and violent behaviour of students images were surfacing on social media often telling a different story. One of these instances was when pictures circulated of students cleaning up streets after their protest march at Luthuli House. When reporters were told by the government that the police refrained from using brute force outside Parliament, the students tweeted pictures of the violence perpetrated against them in response. And, when political parties attempted to hijack the movement and create chaos, students used social media to distance themselves from the actions of these agents.
Attention should also be drawn to the overwhelming interest generated by international communities on social media. Messages of support have come through on Facebook and Twitter commending the efforts of South African students and their devotion to their cause. The University of London students have organised a march in solidarity, which has also been facilitated through social media.
The use of the #FeesMustFall hashtag even became illegal at one point, which enraged students and their supporters. If there is one thing that unites South Africans, it is the possibility of having their free speech censored and the surprising actions of UCT added more fire to the movement.
When President Jacob Zuma declared that there would be no fee increases next year, it was a small victory for #FeesMustFall in what is shaping up to be an on-going war for free education. While the future of the movement is unclear, a new generation of tech-savvy youth has risen, ushering in exciting possibilities for the future of South African activism.